Peer – Learning Projects
I was inspired by working with students in group office hours, and observing them collaborating and explaining things to one another using real life examples.
In this course-long learning activity, students develop a “peer-learning” project, where they have an opportunity to explain and apply the principles of the course while also teaching others about the material. In groups of 4-5, students create a 15–20-minute virtual presentation, structured as a “mini-lecture,” centering their explanation around a miniature model, with a real-world connection, and a series of “test” questions to help solidify knowledge for the audience.
One of the most important learning objectives in my course (ECON 221: Introduction to Strategic Thinking) is:
“By the end of this course, students will be able to use the framework developed in class to apply models to the real world, analyzing case studies and other real-life situations.”
However, this objective has always been very difficult to assess, particularly using traditional exams or assignments. I was inspired by working with students in group office hours, and observing them collaborating and explaining things to one another using real life examples. This learning activity was designed to emulate that process of peer-learning, by providing students with a creative but structured opportunity to connect the ideas developed in class to real-world situations of their own selection.
Level of Difficulty: Easy to Medium
Course: ECON 221 (Introduction to Strategic Thinking) – second year course in the Faculty of Arts, with a mix of students from different backgrounds
Number of Students: Large lectures (100+ students)
Delivery: online or in-person, synchronous
Time: 1 full course duration; 2-3 hours dedicated tutorial time
Keywords: peer learning, collaborative group work, case studies, presentations, peer review
Recipe 1 | Project Outline
We initially explain and describe the project to students, including outlining the steps they will take, and the goals. We also discuss assessment, and the importance of team-work.
As discussed, in this project the end goal is a 15–20-minute virtual presentation, structured as a “mini-lecture,” coupled with a summative “test” at the end.
- Identifies a course learning objective that it will help teach
- Introduces a model (case study), with motivation, that will be used
- Analyzes the model, illustrating how it demonstrates the learning objectives.
- Introduces and solves “follow-up questions” which assess audience understanding
Working in a group for this project also allowed students to discuss course concepts and learn from each other as they create their presentations.
Either asynchronous (recorded) or synchronous (lecture)
- Provide a detailed outline and description on Canvas prior to discussing in class (see Resources, below)
- Include or create some examples or prompts for ideas
- Be prepared to introduce and discuss the idea and role of “learning objectives”
This can generally be introduced live, in a lecture, or can be recorded and questions addressed via comments. This usually takes about 20 minutes.
- Introducing the idea of the project to students, generally early in the semester
- Discuss the goals of the project, the process, and the deliverables; using slides or referring to the outline on Canvas is a good way to describe this to students
- Make sure to highlight key deadlines and the “scaffolding” process
- Explain what “learning objectives” are and how students should think about them – relate to the syllabus or chapters of a textbook for examples
- Demonstrate some examples of past projects or hypothetical examples, illustrating how and why they work
- Be prepared to answer questions and address student concerns – especially about group work.
- Point out that because the goal here is to teach others, a group is an advantage since not everyone learns or explains things in the same way
I have found that by bringing students in to the pedagogical process, and emphasizing the creative and learning goals of the project, you can enhance student engagement and buy-in.
Recipe 2 | Group Contract and Proposal
The group is central to this the project: not only does it make it more feasible (from an evaluation and logistical perspective) in large classes, but it also plays a pedagogical role. Peer learning requires students to interact with one another, and creates more impactful learning experiences. The multi-dimensional aspect of this project (presenting, creating a model, solving, making questions, etc.) also facilitates a rich group experience, allowing people with different skills to contribute equally.
However, group dynamics can be challenging – it can create conflict, and requires management to ensure a fair and impactful learning experience for everyone. This is the role of the group contract: by allowing students to jointly form a social contract (instructor wants citation here), it enhances buy-in and responsibility. It also outlines communication guidelines, responsibilities, and a dispute resolution process that all of the group members agree to – which reduces conflicts.
It is also important that the students, as they work on their group contract, to also put together a short “proposal” for their project topic – this not only gets them to engage with the topic, but to think critically about what they will need to do, and what steps need to be taken, to complete their project.
Synchronous; it is very important that groups sit down together to discuss their contract
The most important prep work is to assign students to groups; you should use your best judgment. The evidence on “best practices” is mixed but some techniques include:
- Allow students to form their own groups, and then randomly matching unpaired students.
- This is the method I used in my course – I think students tend to be good judges of who they will work best with. I usually let students work together a few times first, and share some ideas (e.g. in a discussion).
- Randomly assign group members
- Perform a short survey on skills and group roles, then manually create groups based on the responses to ensure a mix of skills.
The only critical element is that groups should be formed to match with the scaffolding activities (See below); for example, if you are going to have them work on their activities in discussion sections, the groups should be from the same discussion section.
You will also need to create the outline for the group contract and proposal (see Resources, below), and be prepared to discuss it prior to the activity. An example of a good group contract and proposal is essential. If you have TAs running the discussion groups, you should have them prepare to discuss this with the students.
- Prepare the teaching teach to introduce the idea of the group contract, and the proposal. Have them discuss key or required features, and give examples.
- Emphasize the submission deadline, and how they will get feedback
- Also emphasize the importance of a dispute resolution process and how to manage conflict (see below, Resources)
- Break the class into the groups, or have them form groups based on your plan from the prep-work.
- Have the students work on their group contract together, and their proposal.
- Have the teaching team check in with each group twice during the period, to make sure they are on-task and answer any questions.
- Reiterate the deadline for the contract before the class ends.
- After the contract and proposal are submitted, provide formative feedback and suggested revisions promptly (see Grading, below).
This will take about 45 minutes of lab or discussion time; we had a ratio of about 1 teaching staff member to 25-30 students (5-6 groups) to facilitate the session.
At this point, you should provide feedback on the initial proposal and contract, pointing out important suggestions in a formative fashion – this is graded Pass or Fail. If it meets all requirements to a satisfactory or better standard, it passes – otherwise, it’s a failure. However, I allow students to revise it as many times as necessary to get a pass.
- This typically requires few revisions per group, and requires minimal marking time due to the short nature of the incremental feedback required
- For example, the median number of revisions was zero, in my class, and the most required was two.
I also include whether or not improvements were made based on suggestions into the final rubric for the project.
I particularly thank Marina Adshade (VSE, UBC-V) for her suggestion and template for the group contract.
Recipe 3 | Scaffolding the Project
A project which is this complex requires support, which is developed through a series of scaffolding activities. The first of these (Group Contract) we have already discussed – but the deliverables for the project also require support. This is done in three parts:
- First, build on the group contract by asking students to keep meeting minutes during the semester, which include an action log. These are submitted as part of the project.
- Include an example or template they should use, and remind students over the semester to take minutes.
- I often ask, in the group contract, to explicitly assign a minute-keeper and coordinator for meetings.
- Second, schedule an in-lab workshop in which the teaching team supports the students as the develop and analyze their model; including learning outcomes and goals
- Third, use another workshop to teach effective presentation and video production skills, and allow them time to work and get feedback on these topics.
These workshops can be conducted using lab or discussion time, and can include pre-reading or flipped instruction (e.g., a video) to make better use of the class time.
Synchronous, with potential asynchronous (e.g., flipped) elements.
Beforehand, produce some slides or instructional materials which outline your expectations for the students’ projects and presentations; you can see examples in the Resources (below).
Similar to the technique used when introducing the groups and creating the proposal and contract, the method is best conducted in a lab or discussion section:
- Break the class into their groups
- Start by introducing the topic of the workshop, then present the topics or techniques you want to discuss.
- Have the students work on the workshop material (e.g., produce their model, work on their presentation script/slides/outline).
- Have the teaching team check in with each group twice during the period, to make sure they are on-task and answer any questions.
- Reiterate the deadline for the project before the class ends.
These can be held more often, if necessary – we often hold out-of-class “help sessions” during office hours where students can drop in and get support later in the semester.
Recipe 4 | Outputs and Assessment
At the end of the semester, students will submit the deliverables:
- Their final group project, as a recording including their “follow-up” questions
- A collection of their meeting minutes
- An individual peer review, in which they give feedback on the project, and their group mates.
The evaluation of the group project is collective, based on the rubric outlined in Recipe 1. I adjust the grades based on individual peer review feedback (see below), supported by the meeting minutes.
Examples of Final Projects:
- A strategic analysis of the film “The Dark Knight”, exploring how different strategic models imply different results.
- Realistic, tightly focused analysis of model-choice and results
- An analysis of how pizza topping choice can be modelled as a set of strategies, and how changes in the way choices are made change the strategy space
- An analysis of complex, counter-intuitive subject using a practical example
- A model of the 2016 US election, studying how state battlefields emerge from strategic considerations.
- Clear, model-focused simplifications of complex, real-world topic
At this point, the peer reviews are the most important element to develop, as they allow students both to reflect on their own learning, and to provide feedback on their group-mates.
- Devote some time in class (10 minutes) to discussing the importance of feedback, and the confidential nature of it.
- Also address the final evaluation, and be prepared to give feedback
- Write detailed comments on the final rubric, outlining the different elements and where it can be improved
- I find it works best to leave simple comments in the rubric, then add a more general “overview” discussion of the strong and weak points of a project.
This will represent a large investment of time and energy for students, so clear feedback and grading is essential.
This project was worth 35% of their overall course grade, which was based on the evaluation of the final report, and adjusted based on the peer reviews.
Discussion, Reflection, and Modifications
For me, this project was a risk – it required me to change my assessment, and it included group work, which I (personally) did not enjoy as a student. However, I now consider this to be one of my favourite teaching activities:
- While it requires planning and organization, once you’ve set it up, it’s easy to repeat
- It’s very creative and lets students invest their own ideas – many really engage and buy-in to the activity, spending a great deal of time
- It creates projects which you can use in future courses (with permission) and creates valuable learning resources for students
- The feedback and grading are straightforward, and generally formative, which is easy to include in many different assessment frameworks (e.g., ungrading)
Perhaps most importantly, the quality of the projects has (in my experience) been remarkably high – even “average” projects were far better than I expected, and the best examples were truly outstanding, rivalling some of the best pedagogical materials I have seen for this course.
I also solicited feedback from students, to gauge the value of the project and suggest improvements. Survey results were generally very positive, with strong positive feedback on groups and the project in general – as you can see in Figure 1.
Figure 1: Student Evaluation of Peer Learning Project
Student feedback was generally strong, with few negative assessments of the experience.
Potential Modifications: Online or Person? Group or Individual?
This project can be adjusted to be online or in-person, and does not have to be conducted in groups (although there are clear pedagogical advantages). As we can see in Figure 2 (left panel), student feedback shows that generally students will enjoy this project more if conducted online rather than in-person – but they will still generally have a good experience, regardless.
Similarly (unsurprisingly), as we can see in Figure 2 (right panel) students will tend to have a better (worse) experience with the project if they enjoy (dislike) group projects. So, depending on the composition of the class the group aspect can be an advantage or disadvantage – the obvious improvement being to allow people the option to work in groups or individually, if this is feasible.
Many students particularly commented that in an online course the group interaction with peers was beneficial and enjoyable, even if they didn’t like the online format for the course.
Fig 2 Student Feedback on Format
Student comments were generally more negative on the online environment, but skewed positive for the group format.